DHARAMSALA, May 7: For the first time in 55 years in exile, over 200 Tibetans today participated in the Indian general elections-2014 by exercising their newly acquired right to vote in the hill town of Dharamsala.
Majority of them turned up with their temporary voter identity cards in black and white at a polling booth set up at Bhagsu Nath while few voted at booths set up at Dharamkot, Forsyth Ganj and lower Dharamsala.
These Tibetans belong to a unique group of Tibetans born in India between January 26, 1950 and July 1, 1987 who have been given the right to vote by the Election Commission of India (ECI) following judgments passed by the Karnataka High Court in August 2013 and the Delhi High Court in December 2010 that ruled in favour of Tibetans born in India within the stated period being eligible for citizenship.
However, the ECI’s decision has triggered a debate within the Tibetan community in exile on whether embracing this right will weaken the Tibetan freedom struggle.
Lobsang Wangyal, a Tibetan journalist and organizer of Miss Tibet who was among the 200 Tibetans who exercised their right to vote said it will not affect the unity of the Tibetans or the Tibetan struggle.
“By participating in the Indian electoral process my identity as a Tibetan does not change. Since I was born in India, I’m a Tibetan-Indian just like Tibetans who take up American citizenship do not become non Tibetans. These days, Tibetan youngsters in US are doing a great and effective job by initiating and participating in various events for the cause of Tibet,” he said and added “It is a great opportunity for the Tibetans in exile as Tibetans inside Tibet are struggling for these very rights. Rejecting this legal right which has been given to us by the Indian government does not make any sense. Instead, participation in the Indian electoral process will help the Tibetan movement because Indian politicians will now take more interest in Tibetans and listen to the Tibetan voices.”
On the other hand, many Tibetans including Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan writer-activist believes that participating in Indian electoral process will have an adverse effect on the Tibetan freedom movement.
“Even though I was born in Himachal and qualify for this right to vote, I have not registered my name in the voting list and do not wish to vote too. I would like to keep my Tibetan identity and hope to return to a free Tibet as a Tibetan. Tibetans in US and Europe cannot continue to live as refugees because eventually, they will become citizens according to the law of these countries. But in India we can live as refugees and the Indian government has never forced us to change our identity. Instead it has respected the Tibetan identity by helping the Tibetans in building schools, monasteries and settlements,” Tsundue said and added “People who say that this will help the Tibetan movement are trying to justify their choice which are driven by nothing else but self-interest. It will also give the Chinese government a reason to discourage Tibetans in Tibet where our brothers and sisters have sacrificed their lives through self-immolations for the cause of Tibet.”
Opposing views like these coupled with lack of clarity from the Indian government over other existing legal documents issued to Tibetans such as Registration Certificate (RC) that permits foreigners, including Tibetans to stay in India and Identity Certificate (IC) that Tibetans use as a travel document instead of passport has left a majority of eligible Tibetans confused and skeptical which seems to explain for the low number of Tibetans registering in the voters list.
Apart from 1077 registered Tibetan voters in Bir, exact number of Tibetans who have registered in the Tibetan inhabited areas such as Manali and Mandi could not be ascertained as of now.
The north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, which includes Dharamsala-the defacto capital of exiled Tibetans, went to polls today to elect 4 members to Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament.